Oraibi: The 873 Year Old Village in Hopi Arizona That Is Still Thriving

© Fæ / CC BY 2.0

Written by Joyce Nash

Published: November 16, 2023

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Founded in 1150 A.D., the village of Oraibi is North America’s longest-standing continuously inhabited community. Oraibi is located on Third Mesa in the heart of the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona. The village is home to members of the Hopi Tribe who first arrived in Arizona over 2,000 years ago. Keep reading to learn all about Old Oraibi village, its history, and how to visit this area today.

This watercolor painting, “Street in the Pueblo of Oraibi, Tusayan, Arizona,” depicts Oraibi in 1888.

©De Lancey Gill, born Chester / CC0 1.0 – Original / License

Overview of Hopi History

The Hopi people have a rich history and are one of the oldest cultures still alive today. They are deeply spiritual, and religious ceremonies have played an important role in Hopi culture. Hopi beliefs emphasize the importance of strong family ties, serving one’s community, and being a responsible steward of the Earth.

The Hopi trace their ancestry back to Basketmaker and Ancient Puebloan cultures. Evidence of these civilizations can be found in the artifacts and structures visible around the Grand Canyon and northern Arizona. 

Territorial Disputes

In the 1600s, Spanish efforts to colonize the region drove neighboring tribes into Hopi territory. The Hopi were involved in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, which was the only successful Native American campaign to resist colonizers. As a result of the revolt, Spanish forces were kept out of New Mexico for over a decade, and the Hopi maintained a mostly peaceful presence in the region.

As other tribes, including the Navajo, encroached on their lands, the Hopi withdrew in large numbers to the tops of three mesas. For the next 200 years, the Hopi and Navajo had an often fractious relationship with frequent conflicts and disputes over territorial boundaries. 

Establishing the Hopi Reservation

As the United States government pushed westward, the Hopi tribe sought to avoid contact and conflict. However, the U.S. government first claimed control of Hopi lands in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This treaty brought the Mexican-American War to an end and defined the border between Texas and Mexico. 

The Hopi people soon began to attract the attention of U.S. Indian Agents, who wanted to separate Hopi children from their families and send them to boarding schools. However, government officials had no jurisdiction over the Hopi since they did not have an official reservation.

In 1882, U.S. President Chester A. Arthur issued an executive order establishing the Hopi Reservation. The federal government established the reservation with 2.5 million acres, although it did not include Hopi ceremonial shrines, traditional lands, or many important villages.

This photograph from 1898 of Old Oraibi depicts two and three story homes with ladders to access different levels.

©Fæ / CC BY 2.0 – Original / License

Origins of Old Oraibi

Today, the Hopi Reservation consists of about 1.5 million acres across Navajo and Coconino counties. Although the U.S. government excluded many of the tribe’s ancestral lands, the reservation does encompass the three mesas where the Hopi had already established several main villages.

The mesas, known as First, Second, and Third Mesa, contain 12 distinct villages. The Hopi have inhabited Old Oraibi — the oldest district of Oraibi — for nearly a thousand years. The Spanish documented the first European encounter with the village of Oraibi in the 1500s.

Oraibi was a prominent Hopi village in the mid-1700s with an estimated population of about 10,000. Over the following century, the Hopi population decreased significantly due to diseases and drought. In 1905, around 750 people lived in Oraibi, although the older sections were less populated in favor of newer areas on the lower part of the mesa. However, a major split occurred in 1906, resulting in many families leaving to create the city of Hottevilla. By 1970, the population of Old Oraibi had dwindled to about 100.

In 1834, villagers in Oraibi had their first encounter with Americans. Two fur trading companies raided the village, destroying garden plots and murdering several villagers. Oraibi was closed to outsiders for several decades following this incident.

Life in Oraibi

Each Hopi village has its own government and central plaza used for gatherings and ceremonies, and each mesa is known for producing certain types of hand-crafted goods. Villagers on the Third Mesa, including Old Oraibians, have been known for centuries for their weaving, silversmithing, basketry, and carved Kachina dolls.

Hopi society is matrilineal, and each village is home to multiple clans who share common ancestors from their mother’s families. Each clan has a unique history and origin story that its members learn. Additionally, clan members share duties to host ceremonies and honor sacred objects. 

To the Hopi, clan members are family and are treated with high levels of regard. Hopi customs include many familial responsibilities that are divided amongst members, such as caring for infants, new mothers, and the elderly.

Farming and Agriculture

The mesas have an arid climate, receiving about 10 inches of precipitation each year. As a result, the Hopi developed a system of agriculture known as “dry farming.” With irrigation and complex systems of water retention, the Hopi have successfully produced beans, squash, corn, and other crops in a dry, desert landscape.

Along with agriculture, the Hopi people have raised cattle since the Spanish introduced cows to the area in the 1600s. Traditionally, villagers raised cows and livestock on the flat areas surrounding the mesas. Today, nearly half of Hopi households have livestock, and agriculture remains an important part of daily life.

Like many aspects of Hopi life, the Hopi approach to agriculture is deeply entwined with their spiritual beliefs. Hopi farmers face many challenges from their environment, including lack of rain and exposure to animals like coyotes that threaten their crops. They see farming as a spiritual practice that grounds their culture in respect for the environment and mutual cooperation.

Adobe homes in Oraibi, as depicted in this 1898 photograph, have historically been made of clay.

©Fæ / CC BY 2.0 – Original / License

Homes in Old Oraibi

Traditionally, the Hopi lived in adobe houses made of stone and dried clay. Villagers built their homes with flat roofs and multiple levels that they accessed via outdoor ladders. Some Hopi homes included an underground area, known as a Kiva, that was used for religious ceremonies. Villagers in Old Oraibi built homes close together and organized them down narrow streets.

Old Oraibi’s water source was a spring located about a mile to the north, requiring villagers to haul water up the mesa. The arid climate and scarce water supply led the Hopi to construct cisterns to retain rainwater and snow.

Visiting Oraibi

Tourists can visit the Hopi Reservation and Oraibi, and there are several hotels, restaurants, and gift shops to accommodate travelers. The Hopi Tribe is a sovereign nation with a tribal council, and each village has its own government with rules that visitors should respect. It is most important for tourists to realize that village governments do not permit tourists to take any pictures, video recordings, or audio recordings or make drawings or notes of the villages or ceremonies. 

On First Mesa, tourists can visit the villages of Walpi, Tewa, Polacca, and Sichomovi. In Walpi, homes made of stone seem to defy gravity on the ledges of steep cliffs that overlook the vast desert below. Residents of First Mesa villages have produced exquisite pottery for centuries.

Second Mesa includes the villages of Sipaulovi, Shungopavi, and Mishongnovi, and these villages are known for their intricately coiled baskets. Shungopavi is an area with special spiritual significance to the Hopi. Along with Oraibi, Third Mesa is home to the villages of Kykotsmovi, Hotevilla, and Bacavi. Kykotsmovi hosts the seat of the Hopi Tribal Government.

Walpi is the only Hopi village that offers guided tours. However, visitors can respectfully explore the three mesas on their own. Second Mesa features the Hopi Cultural Center, the Honani Gallery, and the Craft Cooperative Guild. Visitors who have the chance to attend a tribal event or ceremony should respect the sacred rites and be mindful not to interrupt with questions or comments.

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About the Author

Joyce Nash is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering travel and geography. She has almost a decade of writing experience. Her background ranges from journalism to farm animal rescues and spans the East Coast to the West. She is based in North Carolina, and in her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, and spending time with her husband and two cats.

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